DAMASCUS, Syria, March 7 (UPI) -- A senior Turkish official visiting Damascus said his country was mediating between Syria and Israel to resume their frozen negotiations, saying Ankara was "doing all in its power" to reach peace in the Middle East.
In an interview with United Press International in Damascus, Turkey's Minister of State for Commercial Affairs Kursat Tuzmen said he was carrying a message from Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to his Syrian counterpart, but refused to reveal the details of its contents.
Tuzmen said that Ankara "is working efficiently and within all its power, doing all it can, to mediate between Syria and Israel within the framework of its desire to work towards achieving peace in the region."
He insisted that Turkey was also exerting "all its efforts" on other tracks "in the region to prepare for peace and to stop the bloodbaths in some of the countries."
Turkey, which has strong ties with Israel, recently said it was keen to do what it can to revive the frozen Syrian-Israeli peace talks, particularly after President Assad called on Israel to return to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Tuzmen played down the U.S. initiative for democracy in the "greater Middle East," which President George W. Bush is expected to reveal in detail during the G-8 summit in June.
The Turkish minister said: "We do not have expectations on the possible scenarios that have not yet happened, but we look at the facts. There are several scenarios being discussed now, just as there were discussions in the past regarding the Middle East, but we must debate matters based only on realities and facts."
Tuzmen ignored a question on a possible Turkish role in bringing closer the views of Washington and Damascus after recent indications that the United States may be about to impose sanctions on Syria.
He insisted that "There is one truth, which is that Syria is a neighbor of Turkey and we are linked by family ties. We should consolidate these ties in an effort to make up for the lost years."
Syrian-Turkish ties were very tense until the two countries signed a security agreement in 1998, which stopped an escalation that could have led to a military confrontation due to Ankara's accusations that Damascus was supporting the rebel Kurdish Workers Party and that it was sheltering the group's leader, Abdallah Ocalan.
In February, 1999, Ocalan was arrested in Kenya and has been sentenced to death in Turkey.
Tuzmen said he was in Syria to sign a memorandum of understanding on a free zone between the two countries, customs and tourism cooperation, and plans to set up commercial centers.
The Turkish official, who was accompanied by 250 Turkish businessmen, held talks with the Syrian ministers of trade and agriculture, and spoke extensively with Syrian businessmen.
A visit by Syria's Bashar Assad to Turkey earlier this year, which was described as historic because it was the first by a Syrian president to Turkey in 57 years, contributed to strengthening strategic cooperation between the neighboring countries, especially on a regional level.
The visit also led to the signing of two economic-related agreements.
On removing the land mines planted between the two countries, Tuzmen said that Turkey "allocated a budget for that, but it will not be an easy operation because the mines have moved from their original place due to landslides."
He said that after removing the land mines, he hoped the area would be transformed into "agricultural projects" that would benefit Syria and Turkey.
The visiting minister added that de-mining their frontiers reflected "a desire from both sides to remove the borders, especially that the economic borders have already been removed with the signing of the free zone and with the exchange of official visits."